Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

04 October 2012

The Great Salesman: Music and Words


Mitt proved himself a great salesman last night. He was forceful, aggressive and commanding. He called the President a liar—politely and indirectly—several times. Yet at the same time, he managed to sound sounded caring, concerned and reasonable, though those three qualities are as remote from his party and its platform as the planet Neptune.

All the PBS commentators expressed themselves in the mincing understatement that passes for “journalism” today. But they all thought Romney “won” the debate. It was an important win, since last night’s was the first debate and the one that focused on what voters care about most: the economy and health care.

My wife agreed. She made up her mind to support Obama months ago. She can’t stand the constant Obama bashing, and she can’t wait for the whole political season to end.

So she was in the kitchen, where she couldn’t quite make out what the debaters were saying. All she could hear was tone of voice and cadence. She later said that, if she had been undecided, the debate might have moved her to vote for Mitt.

And so it went. It was an extraordinary performance. The President’s emotional intelligence trumps Mitt’s by several orders of magnitude. But it wasn’t on display last night. Instead, the President played the college professor, trying to explain complex things to poor students and running out of time.

Mitt was the one who went for the gut, and the jugular. The President seemed tired, fumbling and beaten. He was a professor who hadn’t prepared for class, or one who had over-prepared and hadn’t gotten enough sleep. The law professor and lawyer got slammed by a brash salesman with a lot of promises and a bunch of half-baked “plans” with no details and numbers that don’t add up, but indefatigable confidence in himself.

That was the music. The words were quite different. Mitt telegraphed his big punch in the first moments of the debate.

He said he loves Big Bird, the famous puppet from the universally well-regarded children’s TV program “Sesame Street.” But as president he would drop funding—not just cut it—for PBS, which produces and airs the program. That move would have the incidental effect of forcing yet more Americans to get their “news” from Fox, the propaganda mouthpiece for Mitt and the Tea Party, and the only remaining adamant climate-change denier.

So in the very first moments, Mitt let us know what he would do. He loves us, he said. But he would cut all the things that we love and need so that he and his social class can continue to rape us.

Mitt’s words went downhill from there. He wouldn’t cut taxes if doing so would raise the deficit, he promised at least twice. That sounded good, at least for deficit hawks.

But think about what it means. It means that Mitt will work as hard as he can to cut Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance and all other safety-net programs, because that’s the only way to keeps taxes what they are, let alone cut them, and still balance the budget.

If you think Mitt can balance the budget by cutting deductions and loopholes, as Mitt promised twice, you deserve to be unemployed and without government help. Mitt even promised—twice—to increase military spending, which would make the arithmetic even worse. And even if the arithmetic worked, the politics wouldn’t: Congress can never get rid of corporate welfare because the special-interests who get it care avidly about it and have lots of lobbyists, and the public doesn’t pay attention.

Mitt pressed his case on Medicare, repeating the lie that “Obamacare” will cut it by $716 billion. Neutral fact-checkers have refuted that lie several times: the $716 billion reduction would hit payments to insurers, doctors and hospitals, not Medicare beneficiaries. It’s an attempt to control skyrocketing healt-care costs. But the lie scares seniors and people who like their current insurance, and Mitt and the GOP have no compunctions about lies that work politically. [1, 2, 3 and [search for “epithet”] 4]

Although he did it badly, the President laid out what the GOP is really after. The GOP has hated Medicare since its inception, just as it has Social Security. It can’t stand to see an immense opportunity for private profit go to waste. And now, for the first time ever, it has a realistic plan to get rid of Medicare once and for all.

It’s a long-term plan. Outright abolition would never fly. Instead, the GOP wants to promote consumer “choice.” It wants Medicare to have to “compete” with private plans that skim the cream of healthy seniors, leaving the sick and vulnerable to Medicare. That would reduce the pool of seniors in Medicare to the vanishing point, make Medicare uneconomic, and vastly increase political pressure for its eventual abolition.

It’s a long-term plan, but it’s flawless. The whole idea of insurance is a big risk pool (1 and 2). Reduce the pool in size enough, and you can’t insure.

That’s basic arithmetic. If the GOP can let private insurers skim the cream of seniors, it can reduce the Medicare pool enough to kill Medicare entirely. Then it can subject every patient to an extra 10% administrative expense (to account for all that private profit), plus an extra 10% or more for the profit itself, for a long-term premium increase of at least 20%. About half of that would flow into GOP donors’ pockets; the rest would be “collateral damage.” Mitt himself even hinted at this real goal with his paean to private enterprise.

The President tried to explain all this. But that’s hard to do in a sound bite, and he didn’t do a very good job. The key point—a realistic long-term plan to kill Medicare entirely—got buried in the details and a long explanation that exceeded the President’s allotted time.

Mitt “pivoted” on regulation by admitting that markets need regulation in order to work. That’s an obvious point that the Tea Party never seems to get. Could we have football or basketball without rules and referees? The recent referees’ strike/lockout suggests not.

Mitt even said he likes parts of Dodd-Frank, but he never said which ones. He claimed that Dodd-Frank engraves the “too big to fail” approach to big banks in stone. But he never said how. And of course he never mentioned how Republicans Dubya and Hank Paulson invented “too big to fail” and committed so much money to it that the President had no alternative but follow the precedent or risk a second Great Depression.

Unfortunately, the President also didn’t make these critical points. He did note that the GOP seems allergic to regulation except in critical debates with democrats, but he didn’t give any specific examples.

Mitt didn’t just call the President a liar. He called himself a liar, albeit indirectly. He contradicted almost everything he had said during his primary campaign, in tone if not in substance. Of course tone was nearly all he had to work with, because Mitt and his party have never put much substance—let alone correct arithmetic and details—behind their vaporware plans. The President’s campaign staff have got to work overtime to give the President ready evidence of this mendacious “pivoting” for the next two debates.

In the middle and his closing statement, Mitt did admit what matters to him: private enterprise and “liberty.” Translation: he wants to drown government in a bathtub, just like the Tea Party, so rich and powerful people like him can continue to do what they will with and to the rest of us.

The car Mitt’s selling is a used one. It’s the same car that Ronald Reagan sold us with his Irish charm and both hands in our pockets. It’s got a lot of mileage, for we’ve been cutting taxes and regulation and downsizing government (the part that helps people, not corporations) for thirty years.

Mitt’s used car is defective. In 2010, the top 1% took 93% of the gains from the increased productivity of all of us. Since the seventies, top incomes have increased six times [search for “lion’s share”], while the middle class’ income has stagnated.

The problem is that Mitt has proved himself a powerful used-car salesman. And the President didn’t make this case. As pointed out after the debate, he didn’t even mention Mitt’s don’t-care-about-the 47%-bums gaffe, only the latest of many showing Mitt doesn’t care about the rest of us.

I’m not a political consultant. But I do know one thing: last night’s debate didn’t do the President or our country any good. It put a man with no experience, no real plans (except the GOP’s long-term plan to rape the middle class), and a bunch of extremists behind him a few steps closer to the White House.

The President has to pay more attention to the remaining debates. He’s got to drop his professorial mien and bring his off-the-scale emotional intelligence into play. Playing the underdog is one thing; looking like a beaten dog is another.

It doesn’t matter what else is on his plate as President. If he loses to Mitt, our nation will reach a tipping point and roll downhill toward becoming another South American country. Global warming will accelerate and run away. (Mitt even made a pitch for coal!)

Nothing but imminent nuclear war is more important than getting the President re-elected over such an alternative. Do we want a used-policy salesman to become our Commander in Chief?

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